The last time South Carolina won a football game at Bank of America Stadium, its defensive players streamed off the field believing they had engineered a turnaround. “That’s how you play defense!” they echoed after a 17-13 victory over North Carolina in 2015 secured by a pair of Skai Moore interceptions in the end zone.
It proved a mirage, and one of just three victories the Gamecocks would muster in what would become Steve Spurrier’s final season as coach. Saturday, though, felt different — there was still the bend-bend-bend-don’t break quality of a squad that gave up 504 total yards, but also a South Carolina defense that made nearly every play it needed to down the stretch to earn a 35-28 victory over North Carolina State.
There are still issues in pass protection, and there is still a running game capable of completely disappearing at times. But for this South Carolina team, the biggest X-factor remains on the opposite side of the ball. The offense has playmakers galore. The defense has a few good pieces and a truckload of players either inexperienced or in need of proving themselves. Against the Wolfpack, the development was evident.
Defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth, one of the four players up front coach Will Muschamp personally challenged in the offseason, was often a beast inside. Sophomore linebacker T.J. Brunson, who disrupted a key third-down screen pass in the fourth quarter, looks like a different player. Moore, a linebacker who missed all of last season after neck surgery, still has the moxie and physicality to slam up against 225-pound N.C. State running back Reggie Gallaspy and make a stop on the goal line.
The secondary got key plays late from Rashad Fenton, JaMarcus King and D.J. Smith. South Carolina gave up 17 more first downs, ran 49 fewer plays and was outgained by a mile. Yet, you never had the feeling the Gamecocks defense was hanging on by its bare fingernails. The desperation was all on the other sideline.
To be fair, N.C. State is hardly the second coming of the Greatest Show on Turf. For all the gushing over the Wolfpack’s seeming readiness to take the next step as a program — one television analyst even picked them to make the College Football Playoff — this was still a middle-of-the-pack ACC offense a season ago. A sterner test for the Gamecocks may well come this Saturday, on the road, against a Missouri team that put up 72 points and 815 total yards in its opener. FCS opponent or not, those numbers still command your attention.
But Week 1 was unquestionably progress in the area where Muschamp had the most question marks to start the season. There are still far too many completions to open receivers in short underneath coverage, an issue that predates this season, as well as the occasional missed tackle at the line. But the Gamecocks limited the Wolfpack to 89 net yards rushing, doubled State’s far more heralded D-line in sacks, and often hassled quarterback Ryan Finley (to the tune of 5 hurries) when they couldn’t bring him to the ground.
And more importantly, they made the plays in the second half when the South Carolina offense bogged down. The Gamecocks set the tone with sacks to end the Wolfpack’s first three third-quarter possessions, the first two setting up South Carolina touchdown drives that essentially provided the winning margin. Brunson stopped a third-down screen pass for a loss in the fourth quarter, and Smith’s defense in the secondary snuffed out State’s final two drives.
Those are broad-based contributions from every area of the South Carolina defense, and probably more than any Gamecocks fan could have hoped for the first time out. Given his background and his area of expertise, the conventional wisdom was that Muschamp would figure something out, despite some of the glaring personnel holes he had to work with. Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., provided some evidence that he might be doing just that.
Of course, if any program knows how quickly built-up confidence and momentum can slip away, it’s South Carolina. After all, the week after that apparent defensive breakthrough against the Tar Heels two years ago, Kentucky came to Williams-Brice Stadium and ended a 22-game road losing streak. Missouri’s Drew Lock is a far more potent passer than Patrick Towles, who beat the Gamecocks that night. One flat effort in CoMo, and you’re starting all over again.
But this is a different coach, and a different scheme, and in many cases, different players. This opener felt different, too. Not so much a breakthrough on defense, but a gradual tightening of so many loose areas that cost the Gamecocks on that side of the ball late last season. If anything, the real issues emerging from the Queen City are on offense, where South Carolina got little out of its running backs and tight ends. One catch for minus-2 yards from Hayden Hurst, arguably the best tight end in the SEC?
But the pieces are there behind quarterback Jake Bentley, and the play-calling seemed refreshingly expansive, and not having headsets for half the game surely didn’t help. Barring unnecessary tinkering by the coach, the offense should be fine. For this South Carolina team, the big questions are all on defense. In Charlotte, the Gamecocks found some answers to last them longer than a single afternoon.
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